September 9, 2017 (Toronto International Film Festival), April 27, 2018 (United Kingdom), release dates
Directed by Michael Pearce
Screenplay by Michael Pearce
Music by Jim Williams
Edited by Maya Maffioli
Cinematography by Benjamin Kracun
Johnny Flynn as Pascal Renouf
Geraldine James as Hilary Hanford
Charley Palmer Rothwell as Leigh Dutot
Hattie Gotobed as Jade
Trystan Gravelle as Clifford
Olwen Fouere as DCI Theresa Kelly
Imogen de Ste Croix as Melissa Healey
Tyrone Lopez as Nuno Alvarez
Distributed by 30West
Produced by Agile Films, Stray Bear Productions
A serial killer is terrorizing a small unnamed seaside community, and young women are the victims. At first, the plot of Beast doesn’t focus much on this part of the story; it becomes much more important as the narrative unfolds, after the main character Moll meets and falls in love with someone that her family members and friends disapprove of immediately. His name is Pascal, and the narrative thread about the serial murders is taken up again later in the film when Pascal becomes a suspect.
The credits begin, one by one, over outdoor scenes, including flower and candle memorial sites for young women. After the credits, Beast starts with Moll singing in a practice choral session. Her mother, viewers find out later, is the choral group leader. She tells Moll that she needs more from her, which comes across as a criticism in front of the choral group. As the camera closes in on Moll, the sounds of choral singing fade into dissonant sounds. Then the film cuts abruptly to the film’s title in Gothic type on a black background.
The film cuts from this title shot to Moll getting dressed in her room at home. While she talks in voice-over narration, the film cuts to scenes of an outdoor party and some shots of Moll looking very uncomfortable and unhappy: “I was obsessed by killer whales when I was a kid. They always seemed to be smiling. You know, they travel a hundred miles a day in the ocean. But in captivity, their soundwaves bounce off the walls and they become deaf and dumb. Some even go insane. I read about one whale that broke all its teeth trying to break free. It just got too much for him. He didn’t want to smile anymore.” The fact that viewers do not know to whom the voice-over narration is directed underscores the oddity of Moll’s words.
The party is for Moll’s birthday, and during this party, her mother makes her get out the champagne because Moll’s sister has just announced that she is expecting twins. Thus, the sister steals the limelight from Moll, and her mother celebrates the sister’s news by giving the sister the place of honor at Moll’s party. When Moll goes into the kitchen to get a drink of water before retrieving the champagne, she accidentally drops a glass. She picks up several of the glass shards and squeezes them to cut her hand.
(This blog post about Beast contains spoilers.)
By now, I had a lot of sympathy for Moll. She is portrayed as a tortured soul, trapped in a repressive family whose members don’t seem to value her or care about her happiness. But the film slowly reveals that Moll is not what she appears to be. In fact, her affinity for killer whales and the way that she describes them the night of her birthday party could very well be a description of her own place in the world. She is living in her own form of captivity, but the way she decides to break free turns out to be more destructive than a few broken teeth.
Moll has a nightmare that someone comes into the house and stabs her with a pair of scissors. She is often plagued by nightmares, but viewers eventually learn that they originate from her own misdeeds. When she was still in school, she stabbed a classmate with a pair of scissors. In her dreams, she plays the part of the victim, but in reality, Moll is the perpetrator.
I found myself asking the following questions as I watched the film:
◊ Does the film’s title refer only to the serial killer who is terrorizing the small seaside community?
◊ Is Moll’s mother Hilary a beast for beating her daughter? Moll mentions this in a conversation with Pascal, but is she a reliable narrator?
◊ Are all of Moll’s family members beasts for treating her, one of their own, as a pariah?
◊ Is Moll herself a beast for stabbing her classmate with a pair of scissors?
By the end of the film, the meaning of the title is a bit clearer; by that I mean that it could apply to many characters for many different reasons, but I think it is meant to apply to Moll specifically, which came as the biggest surprise to me.
Before I saw Beast, I had read that the film is difficult to categorize, and I agree with that observation for the most part. I am not at all fond of categories or categorizing, so this is hardly a drawback from my perspective. I do think a case can be made for calling the film a neo-noir, with its understated violence, constant threat of violence, fear, angst, alienation, and the feeling from the main character Moll that she cannot fit in.
The lighting in the film is another reason that I think Beast can be called a neo-noir. It throws viewers off kilter with the use of unusual colors: yellows, reds, blues. Moll lives in what seems like an idyllic seaside town, but some of its inhabitants have a dark side. Some of the bright sunny outdoor scenes are juxtaposed with scenes lit in unnatural colors, which adds to the sense that so much, and not just the violence occurring around the town, is out of kilter.
Beast is also a bit old-fashioned: So much of the violence happens off screen and thus is left to the viewers’ imaginations. It reminded me of low-budget films noir from the 1940s in that regard. I couldn’t find any information about the film’s budget online, so I’m not sure that this is an accurate comparison as far as budget is concerned. But the technique of leaving much of the violence off screen also adds to the unease and the feeling that the threat of violence is a constant in the story.
The narrative holds lots of surprises, which I always count as a plus for any story, on film or in print. The most intriguing detail for me was that both Moll and the viewers go through a transformation over the course of the narrative: Moll begins to accept the beastliness of her nature, and viewers experience a transformation in their understanding of Moll’s character. I said before that the film cuts abruptly to the film’s title (Beast) in Gothic type on a black background, and this happens right after Moll sings choral music with her fellow choir members. This small detail turns out to be an important clue about the title of the film. For the duration of the film, I was waiting for violence to come to Moll; I never expected her to be a perpetrator herself.